TACURONG CITY (MindaNews / 21 November) — You wake up to the sound of the television murmuring from your living room. Breaking news, it says, a novel virus is on the loose, scything crowds to the death in the city of Wuhan. Worst cases topple to the next and on the spur of the moment, the virus reaches more than half of the globe.
In response, the world scurries behind closed doors, hiding from the wrath of the vaccine-less killer. The world pauses and each day, you peek through your window and notice the number of people outside going less and less and less until the streets of your neighborhood set dire and spotless.
The sudden advent of the global pandemic has led to a devastating collapse of society’s structures. With the number of human lives that have and are being lost every day, the ongoing challenges to labor, public health, and food systems, joined by the distressing shortfall of social interactions, a lot are at risk of cascading into extremes difficult to recover.
Coronavirus disease 2019 (CoviD-19) is caused by the 2019 novel coronavirus, known in laboratories as SARS-CoV-2. Similar to related viruses MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV, which wreaked havoc some few years back upon their severely brought respiratory diseases, SARS-CoV-2 is also zoonotic. This means that the virus originated from non-human hosts, particularly animals, and then spread to humans (Mackenzie and Smith, 2020).
Researchers initially suspected that the virus came from bats (Zhou et al. 2020), though upon due research, pangolins also were found to host coronaviruses related to that of SARS-CoV-2 (Zhang et al, 2020). While it may be true that these animals do carry the virus that caused CoviD-19, the more intriguing concern is how the virus jumped from these animals to humans.
Knowingly, humans are found to be more than just victims in this crime scene.
Johnson et al. (2015) suggests that the transmission of zoonotic viruses is heightened by mixing diverse animal species, facilitated by humans in activities taking place in those of live animal markets, wildlife sanctuaries, and even pet shops. In areas like these, the virus can jump from one species to another, creating more hosts, thus widening the scale of transmissions.
As evident in Guangdong, China, where SARS-CoV was first described back in 2002, exotic animals were found to have been immediate origins of the virus. Exotic species kept in marketplaces such as palm civets (Paguma larvata) and raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides) carried the virus and further spread it to cats (Felis catus), red foxes (Vulpes vulpes), Chinese ferret badgers (Melogale moschata) and other species present within the marketplace, including humans (Li et al., 2006). The same case occurred with SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan, China, where it allegedly emerged from wet markets, and super-spread to humans and other species by contact (Mizumoto et al., 2020).
Apart from acts that cram various animal species in compact places like markets, increased animal to human contact is also heavily associated with zoonotic virus transmissions. Human activities that promote these risks such as hunting wildlife, whether for cultural or economic reasons, and illegal wildlife trades are held accountable for the amplified transfer of new viruses from animals to humans. This exploitation, as researchers say, points as the ultimate root of the emergence of COVID-19 (Aguirre et al., 2020).
The Philippines is no stranger to wildlife exploitation. Serving not only as a source for smuggled fauna, the country also operates as channels for larger traders, such as China, Japan and the United States. Animals, both live and dead are traded for a variety of services: exotic food, traditional medicine, pets and even ornaments.
Even at the height of the pandemic, the schemes refuse to die down. Oddly, it seems to flourish even more as the government-issued lockdown protocol ensues. Poverty and the disruption of community life evoked by the termination of many jobs further illegal poaching and other trafficking activities in the name of socioeconomic survival. More so, with most rangers quarantined in their homes, ecosystems are left vulnerable to poachers, granting them golden opportunities to carry on with their hunt.
On top of the issues with wildlife trade, deforestation also contributes to the potential spreading of zoonotic diseases (Tollefson, 2020). While the destruction of habitats at the wake of forest clearances and land conversions visibly leads to biodiversity decline, it also leaves the remaining wildlife no choice but to seek habitation into human settlements, therefore increasing the chances of animal to human interaction, and eventually intensifying the spread of viruses.
Human – wildlife contact result to a majority of emerging diseases, driven by causes of human endeavors such as deforestation, hunting, and trafficking. We might have heard this before, years even before the CoviD-19 pandemic started, but we were quick turn a blind eye, and worse, quick to point fingers on things other than ourselves. We blame animals, bats and pangolins, when the sole suspects worthy of blame here are ourselves — humans.
Nature serves a critical role in keeping infectious and disease-causing agents isolated from people. But with our constant destruction and abuse, this protection is breached. To think of it, the emergence of diseases would have been minimized if we took good care of nature, the natural habitats, and the richness of species that it holds. The virus may be the grenade that wiped populations upon its explosion but we, humans, are the ones that pulled the pin. We are the only ones to blame, yet we are also the only ones who can make things right.
Now that the link between biodiversity and health is drawn, the action needed to mitigate the crisis becomes clear, that is, biodiversity conservation. As experts exert their best in finding a vaccine that will settle the current pandemic, we must do our part and be active in preventing another pandemic from coming.
Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center, Mechtild Rössler, suggests that improved conservation strategies in natural areas and immediate action against illegal wildlife trade are imperative in limiting the emergence of new diseases in the future. In line with this, it is also important to create conditions where these areas can successfully fulfil their biodiversity conservation goals.
By extension, the government should foremost lead initiatives of biodiversity conservation. Authorities are obliged to ensure that the laws and policies implemented are grounded from science and inclusive to both the good of nature and humankind. Likewise, punishment must justly be served to those who take part in nature-damaging operations, may they be individuals, groups, or corporations— no matter how powerful of them; and on the other hand, support and recognition should be given to those who preserve natural areas, especially indigenous peoples and local communities who protect forestlands.
As citizens, cooperating with strategies that care for the environment is of great help. Changing our lifestyles to promote efficient ways of utilizing natural resources is one way of doing so, alongside volunteering in events and organizations that encourage nature restoration such as cleaning drives, reforestation projects, plant and animal life protection and management. Above everything else, using our collective voices in raising awareness and educating the public is as effective and vital in pursuing our aspirations. We need to reach information out to as many as we can, so we can work together in saving what we have left.
In saving nature, you save yourself and so much more. It is that, or you suffer another crippling pandemic. The choice is yours.
(Batang Mindanawo is the youth section of MindaNews. Alliah Jairah Enrique is a 3rd year BS Biology student at the University of the Philippines-Mindanao. Besides science, she also enjoys creating art and watching films with friends in her spare time)
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Li, W., Wong, S., Li, F., Kuhn, J., Huang, I., Choe, H., and Farzan, M. (2006). Animal Origins of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus: Insight from ACE2-S-Protein Interactions. Journal of virology. 80. 4211-4219. 10.1128/JVI.80.9.4211-4219.2006.
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